Ripple effect from Oklahoma opioid judgment deeply felt

Big decisions for drug firms to make ahead of decisive Ohio trial of almost 2,000 actions

The fallout from the landmark judgment in Oklahoma this week holding drug companies liable for the scourge of addiction to opioid-based painkillers continues.

That Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was fined only $572 million (€515 million) – well short of the $17.5 billion sought in the action – could be a pyrrhic victory for the industry.

The court has decided that the drug companies were quick and loose in their marketing, pressuring doctors to overprescribe the highly addictive painkillers to patients. Opioid addiciton is considered to be one of the biggest and most intractable problems facing the US healthcare system and has been a consistent focus of attention for US president Donald Trump.

J&J argued that there was no evidence of individual doctors being pressured or being swayed in their prescribing decisions by the actions of the company. But the state’s novel and radical use of public nusiance legislation – more typically used to deal with matters like dog fouling or noise pollution – to prosecutre the case meant it didn’t have to show such evidence.


Big decisions

J&J's refusal to settle – as rivals Purdue and Teva did – even though its drugs account for only 1 per cent of opioid sales in Oklahoma meant it became the focus for the issue.

Now drug companies – including Irish domiciled Allergan, Mallinckrodt and Endo Internaitonal – have big decisions to make ahead of a mega trial of almost 2,000 different actions in Ohio next month.

Purdue, against whom the vast majority of the suits are filed and which has been considering filing for bankruptcy, paid $270 million to settle the Oklahoma case. Along with the Sacklers, it is now offering up to $12 billion to settle all outstanding claims.

It is far too early yet to say what the final outcome will be in terms of appeals and the cost to the industry. Purdue and the Sackler family, for one, appear determined to draw a line under their exposure.